HOUSTON -- The ball for tonight's Game 7 at Minute Maid Park belongs to Astros right-hander Charlie Morton, who has been tasked with helping his team put away the Yankees and secure a meeting with the Dodgers in the World Series presented by YouTube TV.
Morton -- who will have a fresh and rested bullpen behind him -- will be opposed by veteran Carsten Sabathia in the winner-take-all finale of this best-of-seven American League Championship Series presented by Camping World.
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Sabathia bested Morton in Game 3 on Monday in New York, and it wasn't all that close on paper. The Yankees scored seven times under Morton's watch in a commanding 8-1 victory at Yankee Stadium. But Morton was arguably the victim of spotty defense and bad luck, similar to the tale told in his AL Division Series start against the Red Sox.
The hard-throwing, ground-balling right-hander is seemingly due for a better fortune.
"He's been one of the unluckiest pitchers in the postseason," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said after Houston's 7-1 win in Game 6 that forced the decisive Game 7. "He's not been hit hard, given up a couple of runs here and there. We just feel like with regular rest, he's a great option."
In his ALDS start against the Red Sox on Oct. 9, a 4 1/3-inning outing that resulted in two runs and seven hits, Morton allowed a .389 batting average (7-for-18), but the expected average against him -- based on the quality of contact against him and his actual strikeouts (six) -- was only .236, according to Statcast™.
A similar thing happened in Morton's ALCS start, as the Yanks went 6-for-16 (.375) -- including a three-run homer off the bat of Todd Frazier -- despite a .216 expected average.
"Any game that you throw, I generally just try to forget about a game as quick as I can, whether it's good or bad," Morton said. "I learn from it. Take what I can from it and move on."
Of 25 starting pitchers who have faced at least 15 batters this postseason, the 156-point gap between Morton's actual average allowed (.382) and expected average (.226) is the largest by nearly 100 points.
Should this trend continue, however, the Astros are locked and loaded in their bullpen, with Hinch ensuring all hands are on deck -- including left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who started Wednesday's Game 5. Hinch also has starters Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh at his disposal, and even joked (hinted?) at the possibility of using Game 6 starter Justin Verlander, fresh off throwing seven shutout innings on 99 pitches Friday night.
"We're going to have all hands on deck," said Hinch. "You're going to see a game played tomorrow with everybody available, obviously. Probably not Verlander, but he's superhuman, so we'll see how he shows up tomorrow."
Keuchel previously emerged from the bullpen in a Game 5 ALDS loss to the Royals in 2015. He surrendered a three-run homer to Kendrys Morales, set up by a one-out intentional walk ordered by Hinch.
"No pitcher is going to be in the dugout," Keuchel said late Friday night. "They're all going to be in the bullpen, myself included. Any way we can help out. We're trying to get to the World Series the same way the Yankees are."
During the regular season, Morton turned in a 14-7 record and a 3.62 ERA in 25 starts, posting a 3.26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 146 2/3 innings. On May 14, he shut down the host Yanks for four innings before allowing four runs in the fifth. Each of Morton's first seven outs in the game came via strikeout, and he fanned 10 total.
"He's got great stuff," New York third baseman Chase Headley said. "We got to him a little bit, but certainly he's no pushover. He's very capable of going out and doing similar things as their top two guys did to us. Having said that, it's nice that we had a little bit of success off of him on both sides."
"To get to this point with this group of guys," Morton said, "I'll remember this for the rest of my life. So the stakes are high, obviously, in Game 7. But I'm really just trying to appreciate the moments, because this has been unbelievable here to be a part of with these guys."